The Duke and Dino Re-team for “The Sons of Katie Elder”

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): Movie ReviewKatie Elder lived modestly in the frontier town of Clearwater. Her alcoholic, gambling husband lost their ranch in a poker game and was fatally shot (in the back) that same night. She made dresses and gave guitar lessons to earn the money to send the youngest of her four sons to college. Katie only owned two dresses herself–one for the winter and one for the summer. She never heard from her sons, but told the town’s residents that they sent her money on a regular basis. She counted her oldest son’s letters among her most prized possessions and read them frequently–though he had stopped writing new ones long ago. She even prepaid for her funeral.

All of this is news to her sons, who arrive in Clearwater at the beginning of The Sons of Katie Elder to bury their mother. We learn that the eldest son, John (John Wayne), left home 10 years earlier and eventually became a gunfighter (the sheriff notes, “John Elder isn’t wanted for anything…around here”). Matt Elder (Dean Martin) is a con man and gambler. Youngest son Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) doesn’t want to return to college. And Matt Elder (Earl Holliman), well, he just seems to be wasting his life away. In short, the Elder boys are not a very sympathetic lot.

Instead of going their separate ways again after the funeral, the brothers decide to look into their father’s murder. Though they can’t find any witnesses nor evidence, they become suspicious of Morgan Hastings, a gun-maker who now owns the old Elder ranch. The town’s mortician confides to John, “Hastings’ bent on taking over the whole county.” As the audience, we already know Hastings is bad–he has hired a gunfighter (George Kennedy) to dispose of John. It quickly becomes apparent that The Sons of Katie Elder is heading steadily toward a major showdown.

While Sergio Leone was reinventing the Western in Europe in the mid-1960s, American filmmakers like Henry Hathaway were churning out solid, traditional ganre entries like this one. There are effective moments in the opening scenes of Katie Elder, such as John watching his mother’s funeral in the distance, knowing his presence would only cause disruption. Hathaway frames his celluloid images like a painter, with colorful mountains often adding visual majesty to the backgrounds. There are some potentially rich themes in The Sons of Katie Elder, too, principally that tragedy can reinvigorate the bonds of family. After spending time with his brothers, John apparently wants the camaraderie to continue and proposes they join together to deliver a herd of horses. It’s not a long-term solution toward reuniting the family, but it’s a start.

Anthony Mann explored the importance of family masterfully in his adult Westerns of the 1950s. One wonders how Mann would have handled this material with a different cast (e.g., imagine an embittered James Stewart as John!). But The Sons of Katie Elder has no intentions of being a “serious Western.” Yes, there are killings, but the bickering brothers also brawl playfully whether carousing in Mom’s cabin or throwing each other in a river. And when it turns somewhat serious toward the end, the film jettisons its “importance of family” theme in favor of two lengthy shootout scenes.

One can’t fault the cast, which certainly appears game. However, it’s unfortunate that Katie Elder re-teams John Wayne and Dean Martin–simply because it recalls their earlier pairing in Howard Hawks’ superior 1959 frontier drama, Rio Bravo. My recommendation is that you block out that movie and just accept The Sons of Katie Elder for what it is: a well-made, likable, but disposable Western that missed the opportunity to be more.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

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  • Clint Techmeyer

    I agree that The Sons of Katie Elder leaves the viewer unsatisfied. John Wayne is no romantic, to be sure, but the lovely Martha Hyer is completely wasted in her insipid role. Wayne and Martin are actually a bit old to be playing the part of these prairie sons. The never-seen deceased mother, Katie Elder, must have been incredibly aged when she died to have had these men as her sons!
    This movie does have a great supporting cast including an evil George Kennedy and a very young Dennis Hopper. This could have been a really good story!!

    • Wayne P.

      They sure were way too old…the Duke turned 58 in 1965 and Dino was close to 10 yrs. behind him I would have to say but havent looked him up yet on IMDB. Still, if she prepaid her funeral expenses, she mustve lived at least well before the turn of the century and on into the 1900′s as it cost 5c in 1905 to see a nickeodeon picture and that was said to be a lot of cabbage to harvest for folks back then!

  • ganderson

    Good post by Rick29 – for me it highlights a cinematic maturing process I personally went through as a teenager in the 60′s. As a kid I had always been a big fan of westerns and John Wayne and I never missed one of his movies. However, as the Man with No Name films were coming out, followed by the likes of ‘Butch Cassidy’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’, I started to realize that the western should be painted on a very broad canvass and could produce a better (and more realistic) portrait of the western mythos. So, I ended up pretty disappointed in ‘Katie Elder.’ and the Duke didn’t have quite the luster he’d previously enjoyed, at least with this cinephile. But, for every ‘Katie Elder,’ ‘Chisum’ and ‘Big Jake.’ there was a ‘Searchers,’ ‘Rio Bravo,’ ‘Liberty Valance’ and ‘True Grit.’ I’m still a fan of the Duke – he just needed a strong-willed director, a good script and – most of all – a role where he played against type.

    • Huge movie fan

      Im gonna have to intervene here a bit. I would agree with completly but the places of big jake and true grit should reversed. I honestly dont know why everyone likes true grit so much. I find it dull and overrated. Not john wayne himself, but the movie as a whole, with the exception of the final shootout. I agree with katie elder, but where katie elder failed to tell a story about family, big jake succeeded. It was a great film. Granted it had a tew silly scenes but that only made it more believeable. While not his best, it is definatley not bad.

    • jpp452

      …and Rio Grande, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Red River and (although I expect some argument) The Shootist.

  • Gord Jackson

    As with many, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER is not at the top of my John Wayne must-resee films. I didn’t care for it the first time out and even less when I vewed it many years later. That said, Rick29s comment about director Henry Hathaway framing his celluloid images like a painter is well taken, especially in the happily now available, but still under-valued/under-rated FROM HELL TO TEXAS of 1958. With that latter one I think Hathaway was at the top of his game.

    Finally, that Dennis Hopper has a small part in THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER is very interesting given that Hathaway gave him the roughest of rides during the filming of FROM HELL TO TEXAS. One can only wonder (a) why Hathaway decided to re-use Hopper and (b) why Hopper risked once again being a favourite target for the director’s abuse.

    • Joe S. Cline

      Hathaway used Hopper again in True Grit, so the quarrel between them must have been resolved.

      • Gord Jackson

        Thanks Joe. I had forgotten that.

  • Pat Carver

    I disagree. I think The sons of Katie Elder was a good, solid western. It had a good plot, good characture development and good acting and anyone who has watched or been part of the dynamics between brothers can relate to it.

  • william

    The best thing about the film is the one thing you didn’t mention: the music. Elmer Bernstein produced yet another classic score for this western. There are so many mediocre films which have been ‘saved’ by a great score. Look at ‘The Comancheros’ with one of Elmer’s finest offerings – lyrical, exciting and enhancing the film beyond measure. Or, what about a piece of rubbish like ‘Cannon for Cordoba’ with the ubiquitous George Peppard – absolute drivel, but with incredible music. You ‘reviewers’ never seem to notice what a good score can do to your emotions during a film and make it better than it actually is. But perhaps that’s the main purpose of a film score, to hit you subconsciously.

  • Chuck

    I enjoyed “Sons of Katie Elder” very much, a good solid movie if not a classic. The point made about framing hit home, I loved the openning scene with Big John Wayne watching the funeral from the hills. The score was brilliant also. I loved the acting, Dean Martin excepted. Paul Fix, a long time Wayne co-star was great as the marshall and James Gregory was very good as Hastings. George Kennedy, Dennis Hopper, Earl Holliman, Jeremy Slate, and Martha Hyer (Producer Hal Wallis’ wife) were all solid. A fine movie indeed.

  • Working Man

    Inspired the movie “Four Brothers” starring Mark Wahlberg, set in modern Detroit…worth a look.

  • F J Pinkerton

    The “Sons of Katie Elder” is a great movie, “El Dorado” is better! the paintings at the opening
    credits of “El Dorado” are much better than anything Fredrick Remington ever did on the old west.
    The song and score, actors and screen play have all the elements of being the best western ever
    made! “Dual at Diablo” with James Garner has one of the best music scores for a western I have
    ever heard. Check it out and let me know if you like that one. Olaf, who painted those beautiful
    opening credits paintings stars as “The Swede” in “El Dorado”.

  • Jimbo

    I saw this movie as a teenager and was awed by the combination of intrigue, humor and action. The Sons of Katie Elder is an excellent movie which I believe was redone as 4 Brothers, as the story line is the same. In both 4 brothers return for their mother’s funeral only to find there is foul play afoot. Whether the setting is the Old West or Urban America, The Sons of Katie Elder is a classic film that delivers.

  • Rufnek43

    Katie Elder must have died at 110 to have sons as old as John Wayne and Dean Martin! And it went down from there. A dull and corny film.

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